UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Kat Graham on Creating an Enlightened World

By Raye Mocioiu | Cover Photo © HAROLD JULIAN

“In the last few years, I met with Syrian refugees at the Za’atari camp in Jordan,” says Kat Graham. “I travelled along the Guatemala-Mexico border where I met women, children, and families forced to flee their own countries to escape extreme gang violence.

“In all the time I was there, the resolute, resourceful, graceful, and smart people I met never asked me for anything. Their hope was only to give. All they wanted was the chance to stand on their own feet and show the world they had the strength to survive and thrive.”

Since becoming a high profile supporter for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in 2013, the Swiss-born American actress, singer, and humanitarian has visited displaced people in several spots worldwide, including Jordan, Central America, and Ethiopia, witnessing the courage and strength of the refugees she has encountered.

For Graham, it’s personal—her grandfather was a UN ambassador, and her 2020 appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR feels like an opportunity to continue the legacy of giving that permeates her family’s history.

The half-Liberian and half-Jewish star is also the grandchild of refugees, making her work with the UNHCR that much more important and meaningful.

“During the Liberian Civil War, my grandfather was lined up on the beach to be shot by the Charles Taylor regime. My mother is Russian, Polish—her family fled Europe and the Holocaust,” Graham shares.

“By the grace of God, the geographical roulette wheel, chance, call it what you will—I was fortunate to be born in a stable country. But it could have been me. It could be any one of us.”

Graham shared that her family history, both as refugees and as advocates for other refugees, inspired her to follow the work of the UNHCR since she was 14 years old. It’s for that reason that she’s aware of how much impact she has as a Goodwill Ambassador—a role that has been a long-time dream of hers.

“It’s not lost on me that if my grandfather had been killed while fleeing for his life, or my grandmother was taken to a concentration camp during the Holocaust, I would not be here today. They were refugees, and I walk with their legacy,” Graham said in a 2020 statement announcing her new role. “During my grandparents’ time, refugees often didn’t have anyone to speak up for them. As a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, I pledge to speak up for the refugees of today.”

And speak up she has. Before becoming a Goodwill Ambassador, Graham supported key UNHCR events and campaigns, including World Refugee Day, the Ramadan Campaign, the iBelong Campaign to End Statelessness and the Nansen Refugee Award.

“My work with refugees is part of who I am and what I want my legacy in the world to be,” the star says. “Overall, I care about our common humanity and advance overall human rights however I can.”

Aside from her work with UNHCR, Graham focuses on using her platform to spread awareness and positivity. She has been a vocal advocate for campaigns like the Water Project, Rotary International, GLAAD, and more. Last month, Graham partnered with GLAAD to produce a dance-pop album in celebration of Pride month. As a member of GLAAD’s Atlanta chapter and a longtime supporter of the organization, Graham said that this album sought to share themes of liberation, self-exploration, and acceptance.

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© Courtesy of UNHCR

“By the grace of God, the geographical roulette wheel, chance, call it what you will—I was fortunate to be born in a stable country. But it could have been me. It could be any one of us.”

“At the end of the day, I get involved with an organization when I truly believe that I can help make a difference,” says Graham. “I also consider my audience and how it can impact them to become change agents of their own. I thrive on inspiring others to get involved in what they’re passionate about to change the world for the better.”

Changing the world for the better is a driving force for the star and inspired her passion project, Modern Nirvana Wellness. The project, which Graham launched in collaboration with Frank Elaridi, and Bryant Ikar Wood, supported by Deepak Chopra, inspires enlightenment in one’s everyday life. Graham explains that the idea behind Modern Nirvana is to be a catalyst for transformation in people’s lives, encouraging them to take control of their spiritual and physical wellbeing by sharing both ancient practices and modern bio-hacks.

“Our mission is to bring inspiration and information to a new generation, paving the way for a more enlightened world,” the model shares. “If you are human, you have the potential to be superhuman. We want to showcase the learnings and hacks we’ve picked up along the way with the hope of helping others become the best version of themselves.”

Known for her breakout role on the international hit TV show The Vampire Diaries, Graham works to add advocacy into her work as an actress. She made history by being the first African-American character, April O’Neil, in the animated series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and has starred in feature films like How It Ends, Poison Rose, Emperor, Cut Throat City, and more.

It’s a theme that seems to follow Graham in everything she does. In 2019, Graham participated in the L’Oreal Women of Worth Awards, where she brought South Sudanese refugee and fellow UNHCR high profile supporter Mary Maker as her guest to help highlight the work the two are doing with UNHCR.

Throughout her work with UNHCR and through her vocal support online, Graham shares that she has been particularly moved by the courage and strength of the women and girls she has encountered and their incredible spirit and energy.

“I believe our most important works on this earth are what we can do for others. Being named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador is one of the greatest honours of my life. I’m grateful for this opportunity to continue to shine a light on untold stories of refugees and to work to ensure protection and support for displaced persons around the world,” Graham shared in a 2020 statement.

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Newly appointed UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Kat Graham visiting refugees in Melkadida camp, Ethiopia, in July 2019. © UNHCR/Ariadne Kypriadi

With over 12 million followers on social media, Graham shares that her mission is to “not take the fact that I exist for granted, to not take the fact that I’m a celebrity for granted.”

“There are now over 100 million people displaced worldwide—that’s over one percent of humanity,” says Graham. “This is a tragic and devastating number, and humanity deserves much better. While a large part of the responsibility to find solutions falls on governments and the international community, we as individuals can also do our part. Whoever. Wherever. Whenever. Everyone has a role to play.

“If you’re not already, I urge you to engage with your refugee community. Make them feel welcome, and offer them your support. If you can, donate to organisations such as UNHCR to help forcibly displaced people access basic things like stoves, tents, and blankets crucial for survival while helping to make sure their rights are protected, helping prepare them for a better future.”

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